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Retainer vs project-based work — What are the differences?

6 mins read

When it comes to collaborating with an agency, it's not just about picking the right partner — it's about choosing the right approach. Will you commit to a fixed monthly retainer and put all your trust in one agency? Or will you opt for a pay-as-you-go model, keeping your options open with each project? Choosing between recurring retainer work and pay-as-you-go project work can be overwhelming, but we've got you covered. We'll analyse the benefits of each option to help you make an informed decision for your business.


The argument for recurring retainer work


What is a marketing retainer? 

A retainer is a pricing model that agencies use to establish long-term agreements with clients. The model is similar to a WiFi package or a phone plan, where clients pay a fixed monthly fee to receive agency services.

While the concept remains the same across agencies, retainers may vary slightly in practice. Some agencies calculate retainers based on hourly rates, while others use a point-based or action system to determine the amount of work owed each month.

What are the benefits of a marketing retainer agreement?



Fact: Monthly retainers are a more efficient way to work.

When you sign a retainer, agencies start working on your campaigns immediately as well as book out time in the future to dedicate to your campaign. Relying on your chosen agency for your entire marketing needs reduces research time and lets you know where you stand this month and the next.


Wide range of support

Marketing retainers are just one aspect of the type of support you can receive. Some partners offer a full service, ranging from content marketing and SEO to paid media and video. However, as needs change, so do the offerings available to you.

For instance, some agency partners now offer retainer opportunities for RevOps, integrations, consultancy and much more. That means you aren't limited to what you can actually rely on an agency for.



Campaign integration

When multiple people work on separate projects, it's rare for them to blend seamlessly together. It's like you're building Frankenstein's monster with a content partner doing one thing, a website specialist doing another — and so on.

However, by partnering with a dedicated marketing agency, you can avoid this inconsistency and achieve a cohesive integration of your content, website pages, and marketing materials. Everyone is aware of the goals and where the campaign is up to, so nobody feels like a stranger.


Accurate financial forecasting

Although retainer fees might seem high at first, they work out cheaper than paying for standalone projects over time.

Agencies view retainer work as being a predictable source of income and so they’re often willing to offer a cheaper price than they would otherwise charge for short-term projects. That means retainer work helps you accurately estimate annual marketing expenses before work is even started. 

Big-picture thinking

Ongoing retainer work helps build valuable assets, forges links between them and considers how they fit into your future. It’s impossible to see this far ahead when working on standalone projects.

Those in charge of project work have little to no long-term investment in your organisation and so rarely consider the relationship a project they’re working on may have with another in the future. Retainers, on the other hand, put great emphasis on this with regular reviews of campaign performance and marketing goals.

When it comes to retainer vs project work, using allocated time, agencies might choose to optimise existing content and experiment with new ways of working, not just copy and paste campaigns with no regard for the future. 


Priority access

Having a retainer over project-based work makes you an agency VIP that can enjoy fast turnarounds and quick response rates. Although mistakes are always possible, it’s not likely to happen in your campaign.

It's simple. The more you invest in an agency, the more they'll invest in you.


By having a marketing retainer instead of a standalone project, you get the benefit of a long-term partnership with your agency. As a customer, you get to know the people delivering work for you meanwhile the agency gets to understand you and your needs very well.

The agency you work with is more likely to become an extension of your team rather than only having a 30-60 days relationship. This allows for more flexibility and reflection too, if the agency has the data and understanding from day one. 

Want to see how a well-planned marketing retainer combined with a fantastic relationship can transform a heritage business? Watch the documentary above to see how a marketing retainer and agency support transformed Revival Beds.

One important thing here though is to be aware this relationship not only requires commitment from the agency, you as a customer need to put some time and investment into it too to get the best results out of it.

But the positive? You get access to specialist knowledge and genuine expertise all within one agency. 


The argument for pay-as-you-go project work

What is project work? 

Project work is the simplest form of working with an external agency or freelancer. Firms simply pick a provider before paying them a sum to deliver a task in a short timeframe. 

You’ll likely have engaged in project work in the past. Most companies start this way, investing small amounts of money into infrequent agency support. As companies' marketing needs evolve, they may move away from this type of work. They either build an in-house marketing department, sign a retainer or both — but this doesn’t always have to be the case. 

What are the benefits of project work? 



The obvious advantage of project work is its flexibility in allowing you to stop, start and switch direction after every piece of work. Although there’s less opportunity to halt progress mid-project and you’ll need to keep an agency's capacity in mind when deciding to start something new, there’s undoubtedly more immediate freedom when it comes to project work

However, it doesn't always take the long-term vision into account as it can feel very 'in the moment'.



Project work is great for experimentation, especially if you want to introduce a new format or design element to your content on occasion. For example, you might invest in 3D modelling for a specific service page in the knowledge you’ll likely never need such niche help again.

In scenarios such as this, project work gives you the best of both worlds: access to external talent with none of the commitment. Remember, you can always test a pioneering service and sign a retainer if and when it takes off. 

That doesn't mean you can't experiment within a retainer. There's plenty of scope in a retainer to regularly A/B test and experiment when needed.


Trying agencies on for size

When you’re outsourcing marketing activities for the first time, rushing to sign a retainer might not feel like the right move to make. Instead, project work can act as a precursor to a long-lasting relationship, allowing you to try on an agency for size without any undue pressure.

The only issue is the risk of alienating agencies that avoid project work completely, preferring to focus on retainers and long-term relationships above all else. In your quest to find the best agency, you might miss them completely. 



For companies that can't consistently commit to a monthly retainer, one-off projects can make a huge difference. It allows you to get the expert support you need and draw on wider experience without needing to commit to long-term support.

It may be more budget conscious to start with a project if you have an internal team to do the day-to-day and you just need to spend your budget on the high-level expert work in a project.

Equally, it can be cost-effective to have a retainer as, for your money, you get a defined and agreed output contractually, which you may not be able to expect from an internal employee. You can hold an agency to account over the delivery and results very easily as it is all presented to you and agreed upon.

From the beginning, this historic client saw a yearly return on investment never drop below 10x. And the inbound marketing retainer continued to grow and grow after years of success.

This is also possible internally, but with an agency, you have more leverage as a customer and agency teams also have the structure in place to track their performance on your behalf which can save a lot of time and effort.

When looking at retainer vs project work differences, you could keep most marketing activities in-house and only pay for support when it suits you. This way, you don’t have to wait to hit financial milestones before flirting with the idea of agency assistance. 


Protect against the unexpected

Again, if your pockets aren’t that deep, project work is your friend. Without a rolling contract, you can easily walk away when the chips are down. This way, project work gives you grace when the going gets tough and protects your bank balance in harsh economic climates.

Of course, there are two sides to this argument. Some argue a consistent investment in your firm, in the form of a retainer, will help you to create strong foundations to weather any storm. 

The final throwdown: Retainer vs project work

When asked to choose between retainer vs project work, we’d always choose retainer work as the superior form of marketing support. Why? From experience, we know retainer agreements boast huge potential and are great at keeping both parties happy.

If managed correctly, retainers enable mutually beneficial relationships where two businesses can learn, grow and thrive together. 

Yet, we also recognise there’s a place for project work. Up-and-coming companies, especially those yet to form budgets and define their long-term vision do well with more laidback agency assistance. 

Project work vs retainer agreement; the most important thing is to choose the right fit for you. 

When companies choose the wrong level of support, they never thrive. It’s not that they chose a retainer over a project or a project over a retainer, it’s that they under or overestimate their expectations when it comes to marketing support. 


You should choose project work if: 

  • You’re outsourcing marketing activities for the first time 
  • You can barely afford agency assistance but want it
  • You’re experimenting with something new
  • You’re still figuring out your long-term plan, budget and vision 
  • You want to play the field before picking an agency for a retainer 
  • You have an in-house team ready to deliver but need expert help in initial setup, planning or strategy. Projects are great to support and educate your internal team who can then pick up the project and continue with it 



You should choose a retainer relationship if: 

  • You’ll invest frequently in marketing projects anyway
  • You don't have a dedicated marketing team in-house or the time/resources to hire and train the team needed to deliver your strategy 
  • You want to save money in the long term and accurately forecast finances
  • You’re craving consistency and the ability to integrate 
  • You want to be first in the queue
  • You’re all about strategic planning and creating future-focused content

If you're still unsure about which is right for you, why not talk it through with us before committing to a type of work?

Need help deciding what's right for you?

Still not sure which to choose? Book a 30-minute consultation with who'll walk through your requirements with you. This no-catch consultation will help define what type of work is right for you and your needs.

We spend the time giving out useful information and answering any questions, not forcing you to make a decision or sign on the dotted line. If you need to talk it through before deciding, hit the button below.